Interview: Jamie Fletcher Talks “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”

A brand new production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” has been enjoying standing ovations nightly in both Leeds and Manchester thanks to a phenomenal cast and creative team. At the helm of this superb show starring Divina De Campo is director Jamie Fletcher, whose passion for the work is written all over it. Here, she chats about the show and what is means to her both personally and professionally, giving some generous insights into the making of a hit which means an awful lot to so many. So settle in Hedwig fans (and others) – this one is a gem!

So what has been your route into theatre?

So I’m a musician originally – I went to Leeds College of Music (long before it became Leeds Conservatoire). Then as I was applying to universities I took a bit of a punt on a drama and music degree at Manchester Metropolitan University. I was always interested in theatre but I wasn’t allowed to do theatre and music and loads of creative subjects at school growing up even though I was always cast in leads in shows.

So, that joint honours degree course I did at Manchester Met was quite a contemporary course and so I started making, devising and directing work there. My final year productions were picked up so I did shows at BAC, Battersea Arts Centre and then Greenroom in Manchester – which isn’t there any more but it was a brilliant experimental/ contemporary live art venue. I suppose that was my initial way in; directing my own shows, co-directing with other people and doing lots of devised work with other artists and companies, performing where I needed to and trying to include original live music within those shows. And then over time transitioning into just doing directing.

So you’re not really doing the performing side any more, it’s all directing now?

Yeah, I suppose I was mostly only interested in performing when it involved me playing music. So since about 2014 I’ve been focussing on directing but there was a particular show in 2016 and again in 2018 that was partly autobiographical so it kind of meant that I needed to be in it!

And that was Dancing Bear?

Yeah, it was.

And that show included Divina De Campo as well – so when did the pair of you initially meet and start collaborating?

Well we met at university twenty years ago. We were in a band together and then she was in my final shows as I was starting to make theatre and after graduating she continued to be in shows and bits of films and stuff, so we’ve had quite a long history of collaboration on shows. She was a natural casting choice [for Hedwig] for me because I’ve worked with her so much and knew what she was capable of – also I knew how much that role meant to her.

So for you, it was Divina De Campo from the moment you thought “I’m going to direct Hedwig”?

Yeah, there was nobody else I had in mind at all, she was there from that inception really.

And when did Hedwig the show first land on your radar?

I saw the movie about twenty years ago and I suppose I was blown away by that really; it was a very surprising, unapologetically queer film that was exploring gender identity and the idea of being yourself without having to fit a certain mold. It was like nothing I’d seen before. And it had this wonderfully complex character at the centre of it and of course all this incredible music. I didn’t know at that time it had started its life as a successful off-Broadway theatre show. Then in 2014 it became a multi Tony award-winning Broadway musical and that’s when I became a bit more interested in its development and the directorial choices they’d made – in the back of my head I was always a bit like “I’d love to put my own stamp on that show – I have ideas”, but you know, I never thought I’d really get the chance to direct it.

Actually, I was meant to be directing a different musical for Leeds Playhouse originally but because the pandemic hit, we kept having to shift the dates for that musical – which I can’t name – (laughs) but we lost the rights to it just as we were finally able to do something and we immediately had to pick another show. I said “how about Hedwig and the Angry Inch” in a sort of “we’ll never be able to get the rights to this, but let’s see shall we?” kind of way. It turns out we were super lucky because it’s very rare to be able to get the rights for this show – it hasn’t been done in the UK for many many years so we really lucked out.

Well this is the interesting thing with Hedwig and the Angry Inch – why isn’t it staged here and why are British audiences generally so oblivious to this show? What do you think it boils down to?

I guess for the majority of people in the UK that have heard of Hedwig and the Angry Inch it’s because of the 2001 film which gained a massive cult following worldwide. But lots of people in the UK still haven’t actually seen it or haven’t had the luxury of going to New York to see the broadway show. Hedwig and the Angry Inch hasn’t really had much of an outing here in the UK, it’s been 15 years since it was last professionally staged here and it hasn’t previously had much success in the UK. I think maybe timing is part of that but I think it’s also that the backdrop of the Broadway version of the show is very Americanised; it suits the culture and its politics there but I felt that if we were to do this show now and bring it here, we would need to make a few subtle shifts that would make it land for British audiences. And part of that was making sure that the casting choices were representative of queer, trans and non-binary people; that was an important choice and an integral one to my vision of the show.

So tell me a little bit more about your subtle shifts and casting choices then – how has Hedwig been translated for a British audience?

For our version, one of the things for unlocking it and making it work for audiences here was the setting and getting that right: where are Hedwig and her band playing? If we can get that right then we can make everything else work. So when I started working with Ben Stones, our designer, we were going back and forth, sharing ideas about bringing out the narratives that I could see. I’m a queer trans woman and I thought there were really strong trans narratives within the script and the film that perhaps weren’t put to the forefront of other productions. So I wanted to make sure that we drew those out and handled them with a particular kind of care and attention to detail because I thought it was relevant for how audiences would see it here. And also thinking about the backdrop of trans politics now and how things are seen in the media and the importance of representation for our communities.

So with those things aside, when it came to what does this show look like, where is it set? It was a bit of a wild card idea that I had, which was to set it in northern working men’s clubs, because it was important to find a location which felt relevant to it being here in Leeds or in Manchester. The show was written in the 90’s and we’ve kept it based in the 90’s, so all our dramaturgical thinking and approach to it has come from that period of time, and that period of time was really important for a lot of people working on the show – myself, Ben, Divina – all growing up under Section 28, spending a lot of time as a working class, closeted queer kids in working men’s clubs. 

It just felt so perfect, how wonderfully brilliant and shit all at the same time – (laughs) – if Hedwig and her band are touring around the country, whilst Tommy Gnosis is doing these big elaborate stadium concerts, they are then of course having to play these smallest, most unglamorous, inappropriate and perhaps unfortunate gig locations. So her arriving in an old run down northern working men’s club or conservative club felt amusing. You can imagine how they might be treated; sometimes maybe with open arms and other times with scorn and “what the heck is this?”. But it felt really in-keeping with the movie and the kind of choices they made and it felt really exciting. Then Ben started to unpack that and get into my head a little bit more and ended up creating this incredible set that we’re able [to use] to flip between this domestic setting of the working men’s club and the stadium concert setting.

And it’s so very well done!

I have to say I’m very proud of all the team and everyone that’s worked on it. There’s a lot of love and heart and passion that’s gone into this from everyone – and it’s not just the named people that you see listed. It’s all of the people backstage, it’s the people in wardrobe that have taken Ben’s costume designs and made them into real life things – and having to do wild things with them because I was like “ooh, do you think you can make a dress that bleeds?” and all those quick-change and rip-away things. And it’s also the people who built the set with all the attention to detail – it’s astounding the talent of all of those people and I feel incredibly proud and privileged to have worked with them all to create the show. All that love and care spills out and spills off the stage and hopefully into the audiences and people are going to see how much we love it.

And the audiences I’ve seen have been amazing, and it’s great to see a broader audience in place, too.

Over the last eight years, I’ve been really focusing on finding a way to walk that fine line of commerciality, making queer work available to a wider audience and I do pride myself on that. I think that I sort of knew with this show, just as I did with Dancing Bear, that the audience would be really diverse. What I didn’t count on was how overwhelming their responses have been with this show. I could never have imagined that every show, even the Thursday matinee (!) is maxed out and everyone’s giving a standing ovation at the end, and singing along, and throwing their hands up in the air – my gosh, it’s incredible. I think the thing that makes people fall in love with the show, and having that strong reaction, is seeing themselves represented on stage. That, quite frankly is quite a rare thing – I mean, how many shows have overtly queer, trans themes and have queer, trans people playing them and telling those stories? 

I think there’s a wider, more universal message at the heart of the show which is about resilience, but it’s also about – whether you are LGBTQ+ or not – we all have experienced the pressures of having to perform our genders in a particular way in order to feel accepted or safe in a particular space. When we put such rigid rules around our genders, it effects us all and when we loosen those rules and allow ourselves to be who we really are, we flourish in this wonderful way and I suppose that’s why I wanted that first Hedwig cape reveal to say “Gender is a Construct”; let’s start as we mean to go on. 

So that’s unique to your production? 

Yeah, it usually says “Yankee Go Home with Me”, but “gender is a construct” felt like a more suitable provocative statement to put at the top of our show. The production then flows out from that – the whole story is about the fact that Hedwig is having issues with the binary and how she fits in in the world. So I think there’s that universal story of not quite fitting in but then I think that when we as an audience see people authentically telling stories that are from a particular community – whether that’s trans people, migrants, or other “minority groups” telling their own stories – it comes across as being very honest and it moves you in a greater, deeper way. 

With the cast, we’ve had a number of conversations about this – because quite a large proportion of the team are trans, not having to educate all the time like Trans 101 means that we can focus on the nuances of stories. We can get to something deeper because we can focus on lived experience and support each other through telling those truths. So in this case, what you get is a non-binary person playing Hedwig, a non-binary character, so of course they’re gonna have experiences that are relatable for that which brings something richer to the performance. 

And casting Elijah, who’s a trans man, in the role of Yitzhak makes it fresh and exciting. He’s great and having a trans man as Yizhak I think is really interesting because you have this character exploring drag. And of course a cis man or a trans man can be a Drag Queen and that’s not at odds with him being a man – it doesn’t suddenly make him a woman, he’s just exploring femininity and performance. But society creates this tension and the character, just like us, can feel this pressure of that binary of “ooh we shouldn’t do certain things because it’s taboo”, which is just ridiculous.

Hear hear! So let’s get to the mean questions now – do you have a favourite song in the show?

(Pause) It changes. (laughs, having wilfully cheated) I’ve seen the show so much that it changes a lot but I suppose I’m most excited by our interpretation of “Wig in a Box” and “Sugar Daddy”. With “Wig in a Box”, that was a key moment for us in conveying for the audience that there’s something that’s really affecting that character about her having to meet a certain cis-heteronormative standard of beauty and womanhood; that binary position and her feeling like she has to look and perform a particular kind of womanhood. 

So she gets upset about her receding hair and having to wear a wig, and she talks about having to put on make-up and look a particular way, and how she’s drawing inspiration from these iconic female figures like Farah Fawcett. And she says, you know, “suddenly I’m Miss Midnight Checkout Queen” and you’re like “oh, so you’re working at the checkouts, but in your head you feel you’re having to put on this show in order to be palatable and feel validated and safe” – and that’s what that bit is for me. We get the start of that song where it’s very reflective and slow and melancholic and she’s opening up, and then she’s talking about having to perform and meet a certain beauty standard, then she walks out of her dressing room and the lights all come on and she starts to dance and put on this show. 

There’s a line in it which is “some girls, they’ve got natural ease, they wear it any way they please”, and it breaks my heart because it’s right; some people are really lucky and can do certain things and look a particular way and meet particular beauty standards that means that they fit in and they don’t have the same issues that other women might have. For trans women and trans femme people there is a real pressure that we should look and be a particular way in order to be validated in the gender we are. So that song is particularly special to me, it resonates with me. As a trans woman I feel really strongly about how much the binary, the patriarchy and cis-heteronormative ideals have effected me and how much I’ve actively pushed back against those things in order to feel happier and more myself. 

So that’s a great song moment and “Sugar Daddy” is the other song. At the beginning of the script [there] is a very generous offering, which is basically that we can change locations in order to suit wherever we’re doing it, and we can make tweaks and add-libs to make it appropriate for our audiences – and there’s a same sort of gesture with the musical score. So Alex, our MD, had to orchestrate all of the songs and come up with appropriate versions for our production – obviously people might be aware of a particular Hedwig production soundtrack, but “Sugar Daddy” is a song that has been different in different productions whereas perhaps with the other songs, there’s more of a sense of familiarity.

So when we were talking about “Sugar Daddy”, I remember sort of saying to Alex, “could you make it a bit more… porny?” (laughs) “Like fusing Prince with the soundtrack from Shaft?” And we came come up with all these musical references and Alex took all that in and went away and created this thing that feels like it has those little references, but really hits the mark as a sort of dirty funk rock song and it’s a real highlight for me in the show. And of course in the show that’s where we bring out our giant three and a half foot gummy bear that’s wearing a leather harness and it’s silly fun – that song really works for me and Alex has done an amazing job of putting that together. 

And the band are amazing aren’t they? What an incredible bunch of musicians. When me and Alex were thinking about musicians, there was an active choice to find gigging musicians so it would feel like a gig and more of a solid rock concert feel – and my gosh, don’t they rock! And together with Elijah and Divina, they certainly rock the house down and make me, the team and the audiences smile every night, that’s for sure.

And with a script like that, I have to ask about your favourite line of dialogue? I mean, I have three, and I’ve only seen it the twice, so I’m interested to know yours!

You have three? Go on then, what are the three?

Well, the best has to be that intro to The Origin of Love” about “mother”’s retraction, that dip into a northern dressing down about the fur coat and the banter with the band about lack of effort. You?

Well I wanted to really make sure that the relationships on stage felt very real – they should know each other really well; they’ve been touring together for ages. So all the little looks and additional moments that we added in, they bring me a lot of joy and make it feel alive. The little drummer jokes for me are really funny – all of those things make for more in-depth relationships. 

I love a line that we put in as well: “ladies and gentlemen, and those of you smart enough to be neither” or “ladies and gentlemen and interesting miscellanea”. We wanted to acknowledge non-binary identities in a tangible way, but dramaturgically we couldn’t say the word “non-binary” on stage because that word wasn’t really used in the 90’s and this character hasn’t quite got the language, so she’s finding it out and she’s testing it out on the audience and I love that, it feels fun. But I think everyone will probably walk away with different little bits that stick in their minds – it’s really a testament to the writers. Stephen and John have created this iconic musical that has these wonderful songs and this hilarious and heartfelt story that takes you on an emotional rollercoaster ride with this wonderfully complex lead character and her band of misfits. It’s got a whole heap of silliness, campy, deadpan and dark humour. It certainly gets a lot of laughs.

And the trickiest moment to stage?

The bear! Oh my gosh that bear has caused us so many issues – it takes out lights and all sorts of things as it comes on and off stage! That’s definitely been a hard bit but also I suppose there’s a lot of really beautiful projection work and getting a synergy with everything going on in those moments- those things are not a simple job, but actually once we worked out what was needed to make it work the results for sections like ‘Origin of Love’ or ‘Wicked Little Town (reprise)’ at the end become even more breathtaking and special.

So before I let you get back to life away from a screen, take me into the rehearsal room for a moment. Was there anything significant which really surprised and impressed you, or something you really hadn’t anticipated that made its way into the show?

Oh, loads of things. As a director, you can make only so many choices in advance of going into that rehearsal room on day one and the moment that those actors are trying something for the first time or trying different ways of doing things or when you’re working with musicians that aren’t actors, there are certain moments when you’re gonna be surprised by things. And sometimes the trick as a director is about finding ways for those moments to happen again, the same and still feel spontaneous. For example there are certain lines that Hedwig does that for an audience member will sound totally made up off the cuff in the moment but actually every night they are the same and are completely rehearsed.

I have purposefully left some particular moments a little improvised breathing space and a little bit up to chance (to an extent) – for example there’s parameters for how the band are operating on stage, but as they get more comfortable on stage with what they are doing, they have permission to find more things for themselves and keep adding little things in. I think this helps keep the band alive in the space and reacting and having real fun both when they are playing and when they are not. I couldn’t have imagined at the start of their rehearsals that the band would get to a place where they’d be adding a few of their own little dance routines. (laughs).

Collaboration is definitely the key in everything I think, in terms of unlocking the potential of things, so of course you want to listen to the creative team you’ve brought together around you; you want them to share in your vision and you want them to flourish to do the best job for you. You’d be stupid as a director not to listen to their expertise but also it’s good to be listening and watching how they are responding to how the different elements coming together in the show and how they react to things like the humour in the show and how particular jokes are landing. The cast, musicians, crew and team constantly impress me. They’re an amazing bunch. We’ve had a blast doing this show.

So now, as you head to Manchester, what have you most been struck by in terms of the Leeds run and early audiences?

I knew that we were gonna get a diverse audience, but I could never have expected the comments from the audience, it’s so amazing. It is a representation thing and representation matters. Hearing LGBTQ+ people talking about seeing themselves represented on stage and feeling a connection to the stories, but it’s also seeing parents with their trans kids going to the show and then sending me a message, or Divina or Elijah a message about how wonderful it was for them as parents to see this and to see it with their child. That really makes me emotional; I can’t imagine what seeing a show like this would have been like when I was a teenager – there was just nothing like that, we grew up in a different time. 

And the audiences are giving a lot of love and it feels amazing so it’s sad then to have to go and engage with the politics of what’s going on right now. Right now, still, for trans people, it’s what it was like for gay people in the 80’s – that’s how the media is treating trans people in this country and that’s really sad. People are coming after trans kids or our rights or bringing things into question about trans women being in women’s spaces and it’s like for goodness’ sake, we’ve been around forever. There’s a fear-mongering going on and it’s deeply concerning. I suppose that’s why doing this show is so special. It’s a euphoric show at the end, there’s a real euphoria – a real trans joy and a real queer joy, and a lot of love.

Well I’m thrilled for you and I’m sure you’ll meet with that same success and passion from audiences – how can you not, eh?

I hope so – I’m really proud of everything that we’ve all done and I’m really pleased that audiences are loving it.

You can catch Hedwig and the Angry Inch at HOME Manchester until May 11th 2022 – tickets here. You can also read my 5* review here!

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